A tarot deck is actually two decks
The Major Arcana = your SoulThe 22 cards of the Major Arcana ("Majors") are also known as Trumps, or Keys. They're called Trumps because they, as pure archetypes, exist before the Minors – they rank first; and they're called Keys because they help to unlock aspects of you that are otherwise invisible to you. Why are these aspects of you invisible to you? That's because the Majors deal with Soul issues – Soul being the great mystery that lies inside us, and part of our psycho-spiritual landscape – and we can't see our Soul. What we can do is to learn to identify and interpret its presence – to unlock access to it – through dreams, visions, meaningful coincidences (also known as "synchronicities"), sixth-sense occurrences. And, yes, through tarot. From Card 0 through to Card XXI (tarot card creators love using Roman numerals), the Majors map your inner evolution – your Soul's journey (sometimes known as the The Hero's/Fool's Journey) as you move through life. When you become aware of this journey, the cards start to become deeply meaningful as signposts of where you've been, where you are, and where you're heading next. In Joseph Campbell's words, taken from his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949):
"We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known ...
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God. And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world."
The Minor Arcana = your life
Hellooooo, Minor Arcana!The Minor Arcana (or "Minors") are the strokes that you paint – from broad to fine to a single point, from stipple to wash – that allow those Major Arcana colours to express themselves tangibly. These Minor Arcana strokes are the day-to-day contact points where we see the tangible, real-life ways our Soul is playing out its journey in our lives.* Major/Minor: one can't exist without the other. Both are essential, interdependent elements of a painting so broad, so colourful, so breathtaking that we'd have to take a step back to the other side of the galaxy to take it all in. And it still wouldn't be far enough. *There are four cards in the Minors that are the exception to this. Read on and you'll find out why.
There's more to the Minors than meets the eye - much, much (much) moreFirst, a heads-up: I'm just going to be scratching the surface here. No, make that the surface of the surface. I've been working with tarot for over 10 years, and I'm still exploring the shallows in some areas. To a tarot-muggle, the 56 Minors can look like an amorphous group of cards. They certainly did with me when I started out: I remember that meeting the deck for the first few times was an exercise in overwhelm. But actually the Minors are a supremely organised lot: They are divided into four suits of 14 cards each: Wands, Cups, Swords, Pentacles. These suits correspond to the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, Earth respectively, and the four states of consciousness, from least to most tangible: eros (Wands), heart (Cups), mind (Swords), body (Pentacles). Each suit is sub-divided into three sections: The Aces represent the eternal, non-incarnate quality of their suit. They are the four exceptions I wrote about in point 3, above: being limitless, the Aces are not part of tangible reality; they are the perfection we strive for but never achieve. Cards 2 through 10 represent different situations linked to their suit. For example, the numbered Swords cards will describe situations that involve thoughts, beliefs, the spoken or written word, because Swords = mind. Finally, the Court Cards (the face cards in a standard deck of playing cards – Knight, Queen, King – plus one extra face – the Page) are the different phases of our personal development of that suit's quality. For example, the Court Cards in the Cups family will detail the development of our emotional nature, from immaturity (Page) to maturity (Queen/King). The numbered cards work in parallel: So all of the 4's, for example, are associated with a pause, all the 7's with some kind of inner struggle, all the 10's with completion. Not just a wishy-washy-woo deck of cards, eh? There are depths that reveal themselves over time, and patterns within patterns.
Tarot has close associations with other occult practicesIf the word "occult" sounds scary, let's have a look at its Latin origin in the word celare, 'to hide'. Tarot became a hidden art by necessity at a time when anything that wasn't sanctioned by the Church was seen as the work of the devil. It's a reputation that has stuck, for better or worse. Worse, because tarot is feared when it doesn't need to be; better because, as an outsider, tarot isn't particularly answerable to an external moral authority and it encompasses every aspect of who we are equally. In other words, tarot embraces our beauty and our ugly without shame or apology. Tarot observes rather than judges, reflects rather than sentences. Going back to its occult associations, take tarot and astrology: each Major corresponds to either a celestial body or a zodiac sign, each numbered Minor to an aspect (e.g. the Ten of Cups = Mars in Pisces), and each Court to a zodiac sign that has the same element as the card's suit (e.g. the King of Wands = Aries. Both are associated with the element Fire). Aces are the exception because they are non-incarnate (see point 4, above). Many tarot decks link the Majors to their rune equivalents – for example, the Haindl Tarot by Hermann Haindl, and also The Röhrig Tarot by Carl-W. Röhrig. And tarot is inextricably interwoven with the Qabalah of western esotericism, which draws from many traditions, including astrology, Kabbalah (the much older system of Jewish mysticism), alchemy, and tantra. Two tarot deck examples are the Tarot of Ceremonial Magick, by Lon Milo DuQuette and The Rosetta Tarot by M. M. Meleen (which is based on the grandfather of all occult tarot decks, the Thoth Tarot by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris). Having said that, you can become an adept reader without knowing any of these other systems. What's important is developing your own style and your own voice, and honouring and cultivating your unique connection to your intuitive capabilities. And that's a product of self-confidence coupled with a willingness to be humble, and humbled, time and again in the face of a knowledge that defies full explanation. All else is window-dressing.
Tarot is a divinatory tool
Tarot is not just a divinatory toolTarot is an alchemical process embodied in 78 cards. To explain a bit more: tarot cards are a conduit for a sentient, timeless, compassionate, deeply interested yet non-attached wisdom that works with and through you. The "chemical" in "alchemical" implies reactivity. It's not static; it isn't passive; and you are not the only active substance involved in the reading. The mere decision to have a reading starts to set in motion a process of transformation that has the ability to change your life, and to change it radically. This alchemical process is one where you take a hands-on approach, absolutely, but I believe the alchemy also happens independently of your conscious awareness and focus.